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Sir Roslyn Foster (Ross) Philp (1895–1965)

by James B. Thomas

This article was published:

Sir Roslyn Foster Bowie Philp (1895-1965), judge, was born on 27 July 1895 at Double Bay, Sydney, fourth of seven children of James Alexander Philp, a Scottish-born journalist, and his wife Ellen, née Kilgour, who came from New Zealand. 'Ross' was educated at South Brisbane State School and (on scholarships) at Brisbane Grammar School where he passed the senior public examination. With a helping hand from (Sir) James Blair, he was appointed a clerk in the Queensland Department of Justice on 16 March 1914. He spent one year as associate to Justice (W. A. B.) Shand at Townsville before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 30 September 1916. At St Alban's Anglican Church, Leura, New South Wales, on 7 March 1917 he married Marjorie Alice Hewson ('Peggy') Ferrier.

In June 1917 Philp sailed for England. Four months later he was sent to the Western Front as a gunner in the 12th Army Brigade, Australian Field Artillery. Gassed on 4 November at Ypres, Belgium, he was treated locally and admitted to hospital in England. As a result of the gassing he suffered a recurrent condition known as 'effort syndrome'. He remained in Britain until February 1919, then returned to Brisbane and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 24 April 1919. Resuming his career in the Department of Justice, he studied for the Barristers' Board examinations and was admitted to the Bar on 17 July 1923. That year he was appointed legal-assistant and assistant crown solicitor.

Resigning from the public service in 1926, Philp was State manager of the oil-firm, C. C. Wakefield & Co. Ltd, for two years. From 1928 he developed a large private general practice at the Bar. The Queensland Sugar Millers' Association retained him for some ten years. In 1931 he represented E. G. Theodore in the Mungana case, heard in the Supreme Court of Queensland, and secured a finding in his client's favour. He gained a reputation in commercial and industrial law, lectured at the University of Queensland and became a member (1939) of the law faculty.

On 4 May 1939 Philp was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland. The Australian Labor Party government appreciated his work in the Mungana case and Chief Justice Blair doubtless supported him. Although Philp lacked seniority, his abilities and practice justified his elevation to the bench. Initially, he was unsure whether he could carry the burden, but any doubts were quickly dispelled by his talent for and application to judicial work. He was to show his mastery of probate, criminal, matrimonial and commercial law.

Decisive and clear-minded, Philp made a special study of the Queensland criminal code; his reading included judgements by courts in the United States of America. He led Queensland judges in deriving from the criminal code a coherent body of legal principles rather than a disjointed collection of rules. His decisions were often reported in the press: one newspaper article described him as 'hard on criminals' but not 'callous'. In 1962 a senior police officer suggested that detectives' promotions should depend in part on the number of arrests they made. In a summing-up that year Philp observed that 'it would be a grave matter if a judge could no longer tell a jury . . . that a police officer, prima facie, had no interest in getting a conviction'. His remark led to a ministerial inquiry and to the police commissioner's denial that arrest rates had anything to do with promotion.

Philp's failure to become chief justice stemmed from what he regarded as a matter of principle. When Premier William Forgan Smith had offered him the position of senior puisne judge in 1940, he had declined it, even after Forgan Smith intimated that the promotion would probably ensure his selection as the next chief justice. Philp felt that he should not be appointed to the position over E. A. Douglas who had found against E. M. Hanlon in the Ithaca election case. Neal Macrossan accepted the post and was appointed chief justice in 1946.

Macrossan's elevation left the position of senior puisne judge vacant. Hanlon was by then premier. Douglas was again overlooked. A falling out ensued after Philp's friend (Sir) Alan Mansfield took the post in March 1947. Philp claimed that Mansfield had agreed not to accept it; Mansfield declared that he had made no such promise. They avoided a public rift, though Philp's disapproval was well known. Douglas died in August that year. In 1956, when Mansfield was appointed chief justice, Philp succeeded him as senior puisne judge. He held that office until his death. While his actions had inhibited his advancement, they considerably enhanced his reputation. In 1958 he was appointed K.B.E.

Never a stranger to controversy, Philp had given evidence in 1956 to the royal commission (conducted by K. R. Townley, another Supreme Court judge) into alleged corrupt conduct by T. A. Foley, secretary for public lands. Philp stated that F. M. Bell, a grazier, had told him in 1949 that Foley had demanded £1000 for A.L.P. funds in exchange for granting him a crown lease. During criminal proceedings against Foley in April-May 1956, the magistrate M. J. Hickey ruled Philp's evidence inadmissible and dismissed the charge. Townley, however, found in June that Foley had been guilty of corrupt conduct. Foley resigned his portfolio, but remained in parliament and from the back-benches vilified both Philp and Townley.

At the request of the Federal government, Philp chaired (1939-45) the Queensland advisory committee on aliens, investigated (1945) the loss of a Stinson aircraft in Victoria and headed (1961) a committee of inquiry into the marketing of wool. In 1954-55 he was a member of the Commonwealth royal commission on espionage which found evidence that the Soviet Union was conducting clandestine activities in Australia.

Philp was a trustee (1940-47) of his old school, a member (1955-61) of the Queensland committee for selecting Rhodes scholars, and a patron of the Twelfth Night Theatre Company. He presided over the Queensland Club (1957-58), the State division of the National Heart Foundation of Australia (1959-64) and the trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery (1959-65). A keen golfer and a noted club-man who enjoyed company, conversation, food and wine, he had strong features and an impressive bearing.

In 1964 Philp fell fatally ill. He bore his condition with patience and courage. When he was unable to attend court he delivered reserved judgements from his Wickham Terrace home. Survived by his wife and one of his three sons, he died of cancer on 19 March 1965 at St Martin's Private Hospital, Brisbane; he was accorded a state funeral and was cremated. His son Ross had been killed over Denmark in 1944 while serving in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Sir Owen Dixon called Philp's death a 'great loss'. (Sir) Joseph Sheehy described him as a 'man of the highest principles'. Sir Harry Gibbs recalled him as 'even-tempered, good humoured, quick to grasp the point of an argument and expeditious in giving judgment'. The Bar Association of Queensland holds J. T. Rigby's portrait (1959) of Sir Roslyn.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • B. H. McPherson, The Supreme Court of Queensland 1859-1960 (Brisb, 1989)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1954-55, 3, p 187
  • Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1956-57 and 1957, 2, p 733
  • State Reports, Queensland, 1939, p 90, 1941, p 56, 1942, p 40, 1943, p 137
  • Queensland Reports, 1965, memoranda of 1965
  • Australian Bar Review, July 1990, p 181
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 24-25 Aug 1940, 1 Jan 1958, 27 Sept 1962, 20, 30 Mar, 23 June 1965
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 14 July 1957, 30 Sept 1962.

Citation details

James B. Thomas, 'Philp, Sir Roslyn Foster (Ross) (1895–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Roslyn Philp, 1938

Roslyn Philp, 1938

State Library of Queensland, 127827

Life Summary [details]


27 July, 1895
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


19 March, 1965 (aged 69)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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